Tunisia – Sahel – Africa - Afghanistan – defence cooperation – NATO/Russia/anti-missile defense cooperation – nuclear deterrence
Q. – In the face of the Tunisian uprising, didn’t France make a political mistake by supporting President Ben Ali up until the last moment?
THE MINISTER – France remains true to the two fundamental principles of her foreign policy: non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign State and support for democracy and freedom. For everyone, Europeans and Americans, Tunisia was going through a period of significant economic development and had every appearance of political stability. A middle class was emerging, the status of women improving and a major effort being made on education.
We doubtless underestimated the public’s exasperation in the face of a police and dictatorial regime.
Today, we’re saying clearly that the Tunisian people’s choices and aspirations must be heard. We therefore called for an end to the violence and for free elections to be organized as soon as possible.
We’re ready to support this democratic process. Tunisia is a friend.
Q. – In the Sahel, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) killed three French hostages. France chose to respond by using force and intervening militarily. Is this a war? Have we changed strategy?
THE MINISTER – I avoid using extreme language. We’re fighting terrorism, like our European and American allies. And there’s no shift in strategy. Let me remind you that a few months ago we supported the Mauritanian operation to try and free our hostage Michel Germaneau.
France will do her utmost to protect her nationals and intends signalling her determination to discourage acts of terrorism. France mustn’t be alone in fighting this battle, which primarily concerns the countries of the region. We have to succeed in getting Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria to come together more to fight terrorism. Despite this common determination, we still haven’t been able to bring the area under control. We mustn’t give up.
Q. – Does the government have a “Sahel plan” for this?
THE MINISTER – The countries most concerned by the terrorist threat – Mauritania, Mali and Niger – must permanently establish their authority over the whole of their territories. France’s action aims to strengthen their ability to face up to this challenge thanks to political, military and civilian cooperation. The European Union is going to make its contribution.
FRENCH PRESENCE IN AFRICA
Q. – France is reducing her presence in Africa at a time when not only the Americans, but also the Chinese – who are going to have a base in Djibouti – are developing theirs. Does it need to be readjusted?
THE MINISTER – Our [military] set-up is well balanced today, with prepositioned forces on both sides of Africa: in Djibouti in the east and Gabon in the west. We’ve updated our defence agreements with our African partners: we’re no longer in Africa to intervene in States’ domestic affairs. I recently talked to the Chadian President about Operation Epervier, which has 950 troops: we’re keen to develop this into bilateral cooperation. We’ve stepped up our presence in the Gulf, facilitating our deployment in Afghanistan.
We also have to continue pooling at European level the action we’re carrying out in Africa, just as we are in the Atalanta anti-piracy operation off the coast of Djibouti. France didn’t have the resources to conduct this alone. The smooth running of Atalanta encourages us to continue sharing responsibilities with our European partners.
Q. – You recently declared that Afghanistan was a trap for all the contingents involved. What’s the way out?
THE MINISTER – The NATO allies’ roadmap – to hand over to the Afghans responsibility for their security by 2014 – has the virtue of being clear.
I don’t see any alternative solution. Staying isn’t without risks – I’m not forgetting the deaths, month after month. But leaving today would be a dangerous betrayal in our fight against terrorism and contribute to global instability. I said this to our soldiers to remind them of the purpose of their mission. What would be the repercussions, on the whole region, of the return of a Taliban or [other] extremist regime?
American General David Petraeus, who commands the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, believes the allied forces are making progress. During my recent visit to Afghanistan, I noted that our soldiers are scoring points in Surobi and Kapisa. Our troops should be in a position to hand over responsibility for Surobi to the Afghans in the middle of 2011.
We’ve got to intensify our efforts in order to remain on schedule. At any rate it’s important today to reassure those hesitating about whose side to come down on: after 2014 we’ll be pursuing a long-term partnership with Afghanistan, based on cooperation and development. A great deal will also depend on Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate. This isn’t a foregone conclusion. It’s important for France and the Europeans to hold direct talks with the Pakistanis.
Q. – You’ve met your British counterpart, Liam Fox, for the first time. Will the Franco-British treaty of 2 November lead to concrete defence cooperation?
THE MINISTER – We got to the heart of the matter. Confidential work will continue in one area: what we’re doing in Valduc (Côte-d’Or), combining our research efforts on simulation and on maintaining the security and reliability of our nuclear weapons.
Apart from that, our working groups and chiefs of staff are being very active. We have ambitions relating, for example, to the development of a Franco-British medium-altitude UAV over ten years in the naval aviation field, to make our equipment interoperable. We also discussed the creation of a joint expeditionary force, even if we have yet to discuss the kind of operations to deploy it in. We must clearly mark out the route to ensure we’re making progress. We’ll do a very precise assessment of the first phase at the autumn 2011 summit.
Q. – You want to relaunch Defence Europe, but the British won’t hear of it!
THE MINISTER – The Franco-British treaty may be a building-block, and it doesn’t exclude other cooperation. France’s desire is to up the stakes with the Germans and Poles. In a joint letter, we’ve called on the European Union High Representative, Catherine Ashton, to get involved in a common security and defence policy. We haven’t received an answer yet. We hope we do.
Our budgetary restrictions were a strong incentive for the British and French to forge closer ties. Let’s hope those same constraints will motivate the Europeans to continue pooling resources.
NATO/RUSSIA/ANTI-MISSILE DEFENCE COOPERATION
Q. – What’s your assessment of the return to the NATO command, which you had reservations about a few years ago?
THE MINISTER – All things considered, the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. Our role in the Alliance command has been strengthened, and we most probably wouldn’t have signed the treaty with the British without putting an end to the old mistrust. The Lisbon summit in November was a success for France. The allies said clearly that the Alliance would be nuclear as long as there were nuclear weapons on the surface of the planet and that anti-missile defence wouldn’t be a substitute for deterrence. We’ve overcome our differences with the Germans on this point. The allies also decided in Lisbon to cooperate with the Russians on anti-missile defence.
Q. – How do you make Russia cooperate on a system she regards as a threat to her interests?
THE MINISTER – It’ll be complicated, but we must make a choice: do we want to create a climate of trust with Russia? Or do we continue being reluctant to go there? Of course, on certain subjects we have differences with Russia. But there, too, the advantage of creating a strategic partnership with Russia is much greater than the possible drawbacks. It’s a position we share with Germany and even with the British, with certain reservations.
I heard Barack Obama saying to Dmitri Medvedev in Lisbon: “you’re not just a partner but a friend”. France can’t be criticized for delivering ships – the Mistral amphibious assault ships – to a friend. And in Russia it’s in our interest to turn towards those who want a real partnership with Europe.
Q. – Won’t a debate on deterrence become necessary in France the more progress we make on those matters?
THE MINISTER – I don’t feel it’s relevant. We’ve considerably adapted our deterrence to the present conditions. Nobody has any lessons to teach us on disarmament: we’ve dismantled our fissile material production industry, got rid of one of the components of our deterrence force, the Plateau d’Albion [military base], signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and developed a simulation capability. And we’re keeping our deterrence at the level of strict sufficiency.
The holders of large nuclear arsenals are setting themselves the target of reducing them to 1,500 warheads each; we have fewer than 300. Besides, is it really the time to lower our guard, when nuclear proliferation isn’t under control? We’ll see about that when we’re in a position to prevent Iran, North Korea and other countries from continuing along this dangerous path./.